NYU was established by a group of New Yorkers under the direction of the then-Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin and was officially established by the New York State Legislature in 1831.

Washington Square College was established as NYU's downtown undergraduate institution in 1914.

Nassau College-Hofstra Memorial of New York University at Hempstead, Long Island" was inaugurated by NYU in 1935. Later on, this addition would separate completely to create Hofstra University.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, New York City's administration was engulfed in a financial crisis that also affected the city's institutions, including NYU.

James McNaughton Hester, the president of NYU, arranged the sale of the University Heights campus to the City University of New York in 1973 as a result of the university's impending bankruptcy.

The Statue of Liberty served as the inspiration for the university's upheld torch logo, which represents NYU's commitment to New York City.

During the 2006–2007 academic year, NYU made 118 million kilowatt-hours of wind energy purchases as part of this strategy, making it the largest university in the nation and the only school in New York City to do so.

During the 2006–2007 academic year, NYU made the greatest wind energy purchase of any university in the nation and of any institution in New York City, totaling 118 million kilowatt-hours.